The sets were placed on a giant rotating table with the cels held vertically in front. As filming progressed the table was rotated. “It gave some great effects but was a very limited approach,” declared Carlee. “The camera couldn’t move around the character, but it still gave a great multiplane effect. Disney, of course, used the multiplane but it has fallen out of use due to cost. Computer animation is now bringing back some of that dimension and screen dynamics.”
One of the first tests combining 2-dimensional characters with 3-D computer backgrounds was Where the Wild Things Are, made in 1983 at the Disney Studios. “I had hoped that everyone would see the light and things would start moving in that direction, but things haven’t taken off until recently,” observed Carlee.
The animation industry has a series of problems to solve. Working in the film format takes much more computing power than working in video. “When you start working at the resolution needed for film your problems are multiplied by a power of ten,” estimates Carlee. “This includes scanners, film recorders and storage space; it is one thing to do a 30-second spot, it is another to crank out eighty feet of film a minute for a feature length production. I think the animation industry is going to address many of these problems but the benefits will go to the film industry in general.”
Computers can be used as a post production tool to carry out all opticals. Many special-effects houses are looking at the computer as a way of keeping all the elements first generation. “Hopefully very few people will notice this work, such as the combining of matte paintings with live-action,” said Carlee.
When very large memory storage becomes practical, films will be edited on computers. “The films will be colour corrected on the computer and they will also remove errors such as scratches. In the future computers will be able to restore archive films by removing scratches and water damage,” predicted Carlee.
So what is Don Bluth Entertainment doing? “The obvious thing is to use the computer like a live-action camera,” reported Carlee. “That doesn’t mean moving the camera in every shot. The director makes a series of choices about how he wants to set up a shot. He decides when he is going to pan, when he is going to truck, these choices depend on the dynamics he wants to achieve in telling that story.”
Usually animation works in only two planes, when a character walks along you pan the background to the right or left, or north or south. “That is really as far as you can go with conventional methods,” claims Carlee. “Now you can use the camera to follow a character going up a spiral staircase, taking the point of view of another character.”
“One of the first films I worked on at the Bluth studio was Rock-A-Doodle, that was about a year-and-a-half ago,” recalled Carlee. “The computer was mostly used to create 3-D props. However, there was one shot where the camera flew through a corn field and ended up looking down the tonsils of a singing cockerel. The company hadn’t done many scenes like that before, so when we showed up with it one day they said it was great and asked us to do more of it.”
The corn field scene was printed out on paper, transferred to cel, then somebody painted each entire cel. “It would have been a lot nicer if it had been rendered in the computer, then textures could have been used to make it look like a traditional animation background. That is the direction we are going in now.
The Bluth studio use Softimage animation software on Iris Personal Workstations. The computer department has four personnel in a studio of around 350 people.
“People are understandably concerned about computers taking over their jobs,” admitted Carlee. “My usual approach for dealing with animator paranoia is to tell them I am going to use the computer to make their scene a big multiplane shot, with soft focus, and shadows, and it will be the best scene in the whole movie. When they hear this, they normally come round.”
Steve Goldberg, lead animator in computer graphics imagery at Walt Disney Feature Animation, USA, gave a talk at Computer Graphics ‘911 entitled 3-D Computer animation in Disney feature animation.
Goldberg pointed out that Walt Disney had embraced new technology since the inception of the company. In 1928 he introduced synchronised sound with Steamboat Willie; by 1937 he had brought the production of animated films to the point where they were capable of making the full length feature: Snow White. In the late 30s he introduced the multiplane camera. The idea was to set up levels of artwork separated by varying amounts of space. These levels could be moved independently and they racked focus on different levels. This produced results that had never been seen before in animated films. It introduced 3-D to the films, heightening the sense of the environment that these characters were playing against.
After Walt Disney’s death the nature of the films changed. In the 80s they had a push to put the quality back in the films. “The new directors wanted to create something different,” said Goldberg. “They were tired of making features based on the old films, yet they wanted retain the good points such as the quality, the soul and the personality of the characters.”
Computer technology was introduced for two reasons; first to increase quality, bringing a new look and feel to the film that had never been experienced before. The second reason was to increase efficiency; tasks performed repetitively by hand were very painstaking, and can now be accomplished so easily on a computer. They did not necessarily cut staff but were able to give them assignments that were far more interesting.